Tom Barras captures an important distinction within the wine-buying public in his post about wine appreciation.
I could be wrong, but my gut feel about casual, somewhat “with-it” wine drinkers, is that most of us are primarily (if not totally) satisfied by one or two points of any given wine’s characteristics. That oak-lavished, buttery Chardonnay or that rich, ripe Cabernet fruit bomb delivers most of what we want and have come to expect from them. Similarly, as a Sauvignon Blanc fan, all I usually I look for, and am satisfied with, are the telltale lemon/lime/grapefruit aromas and flavors coupled with a long, crisp, oak-free finish.
Most wine drinkers care about regional or varietal typicity. They want the wine in the glass to taste like what the label leads them to expect.
But that doesn’t captures what wine geeks are after.
But having said that, there are times when I, and maybe some of you, feel adventurous, and get in the hunt for wines with special qualities and a unique birthplace. That search for specificity begins with a peeling back of the various AVA, and Sub AVA, layers. For example, a Pinot Noir with the all-inclusive, state-wide, California AVA, should receive far less interest than, say, one labeled as Sonoma County. And within that, one might look deeper to Sonoma Coast, and beyond that, to one that could be Estate Bottled, or possible even one with an established, well known Single Vineyard identify.
This, I think, is the conventional wisdom. The more specific the region from which the grapes originate, the more distinctive the wine will be. In some places, such as Burgundy, that specificity gets down to particular rows in a vineyard. If the site has a distinctive microclimate or unique geological features, we expect the wine made from those grapes to be distinctive and unique as well. And consumers are willing to pay more for that distinction—that’s what cult wines are about.
I referred to these consumers as “wine geeks” above but a better moniker might be “difference hounds.” As I argued in Beauty and the Yeast, wine aesthetics is all about the variations of which wine is capable.
But there are counter examples to Tom’s thesis about specificity.
Australia has long championed their multi-regional blends as paragons of quality. The top of that heap is arguably Penfolds Grange made from grapes sourced from Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, and McLaren Vale and selling for just under $1000 per bottle. In Barolo, there is a long standing debate about whether blends from multiple vineyards and sub-regions provide a more dimensional and consistent experience than the recently popular single vineyard wines. The top regions in Spain only recently embraced the single vineyard designation. Rioja Gran Reserva are usually blends from Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Eastern Rioja.
If you’re a difference hound, does it matter whether the variations come from the vineyard or the master blender?
I would add Cristal, Dom Perignon, Graham and Taylor Vintage Ports and similar wines to the list. Is it really distinctiveness, or is the appeal purely costs and rarity–in other words exclusivity?
Thanks for your comments Dwight. No question that there is no one best approach. Bordeaux and Chateauneuf are other examples of blending excellence, and I love those as well.
If the vineyard is worth a distinctive feature in your glass (Burgundy; Mosel; Barolo; Etna) then it is important, but just listing a vineyard site is no measure of quality. An admiral blend, perhaps, such as some Barolo; Brunello; Chablis 1er Crú) may often be a better wine.The skill, and ability, of the winemaker is important, too.